Anger at Vatican Plan to Ban Altar Girls

A heated battle has been joined in the Vatican between moderates and conservatives over a directive, called for by the Pope, that would bar altar girls and stop millions of Roman Catholics around the world dancing, or even clapping, in their churches.

The document would also clamp down on adult, lay pastoral assistants. It would forbid priests during sermons quoting from ethical texts other than the Gospels. And it would rank services jointly celebrated with Protestant ministers or Orthodox priests alongside black masses as one of the four "most serious" abuses.

In a clear effort to block, or, at least dilute, the measure, a leaked text of the draft was this week published in Jesus, the monthly review of the Society of St Paul, an international Catholic organisation.

One Vatican insider was yesterday quoted by the Rome newspaper Il Messaggero as saying it contained "idiocies so mad as to incite fear".

The document was compiled by officials from two Vatican ministries, responsible for doctrine and liturgy, after the Pope called earlier this year for new guidelines on the way masses are held. Many clerics had complained that liberalisation and experiment in recent decades had left them not knowing what was allowed.

Catholics in western, and particularly northern, Europe are likely to be most taken aback by the Vatican officials' determination to block one of the few means of participation in church ritual for women.

The draft text states that priests should only allow girls to help them at mass if they have a special dispensation from their bishop and there is "just cause", which Italian commentators took to mean an absence of boys. According to the leaked draft, priests ought "never to feel themselves obliged to recruit girls".

In developing countries, where the Catholic church now has most of its members, the most controversial injunction will be the one banning "applause and dance within the place of worship, even outside the celebration of [mass]".

Dance is an integral part of worship in Africa and Asia and has figured in numerous services attended by the Pope. Clapping is also commonplace in Italy at weddings, baptisms and even during funerals.

The draft "instruction" was reportedly tabled in June and came in for stiff criticism at a meeting of the two departments. A final version is due to be published this year.